As food banks struggle to cope with rising demand, they – and politicians – could learn valuable lessons from volunteers in Canada about the precarious nature of charity food provision.

 For years they have been volunteers at the local food banks. And they’ve had enough.

In fact, though they express themselves politely, they are furious. Alf Judd, the director of operations at Georgina Community Food Pantry, explained their frustration:

“I began volunteering with the food bank in 1990 thinking I would do this for a couple of years; here I am 22 years later.”

The Sudbury volunteers’ clever adaptation of the Paul Simon song 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, is part of a campaign – Freedom 90 – to make obsolete the charity food banks they themselves helped to create and sustain. Many are in their sixties and seventies; their explicit aim is to “retire” from food crisis volunteering before they reach the age of 90.

Its an unexpected campaign – older people, prosperous pillars of civil society, not obvious radicals – that has prompted the kind of bemused, if slightly patronising, press write-up that asks:


What if the little old ladies who run the neighborhood church food pantry rebelled?


But they are deadly serious, and have two serious demands: that social assistance and minimum wage levels are sufficient for everyone to have adequate housing and to buy their own food; and that government takes meaningful action to end povertyand make food banks unnecessary.

What they calls the “food bank scenario” is, they argue, unjust, undignified and unsustainable as a way of meeting the most basic needs of individuals and families, especially in their own, relatively wealthy province of Ontario.

They don’t want to shut down food banks – at least not immediately – they just want to make them unnecessary. Food banks, they argue (from bitter experience) don’t solve poverty; they don’t address food insecurity (only 20% of people in poverty who need food use food banks). They are stigmatising, and inefficient. Charity does not have unlimited capacity, they have found; and as demand for emergency food grows, there are physical and emotional limits to the amount of food bank volunteering they can do:


They [food bank volunteers] are helping in one of the only ways they know how but it is a job without an end and when times are tough, the stress and burden of feeling responsible for whether or not families have enough food to survive has simply become too much for many of our volunteers to bear.


This week I wrote about food banks in the UKstruggling to meet rising demand. That is an experience something Freedom 90 could tell them about. Canada has had food banks since the 1990s, (there are now thousands, and 900,000 people access them each month) and three decades on they still face the same underlying challenges.

According to Canadian academic Elaine Power, writing in Food Ethics Journal, in December 2011:


The 2010 Hunger Report, an annual report issued by the national association of food banks, Food Banks Canada, reports that 35% of food banks across the country ran out of food and 50% cut back on quantities because of rising demand – a 28% increase from 2008 to 2010 – and inadequate supply.


Power describes how the pioneer Canadian food bankers fervently believed their role was temporary, and that food banks would quickly close once the economy picked up. But even when things did pick up, food banks expanded: they invested in headquarters and equipment, hired full time staff, ran glossy marketing campaigns to publicise food drives, and accepted corporate sponsors.

The result, says Power, is that food banks:


…have become an integral part of our social safety net


That is precisely what is in danger of happening in the UK. Food banks are not merely proliferating, but are now co-opted into the fringes of the welfare state: following the abolition of the social fund, some local authorities give them grants in return for them playing a formal part in local welfare crisis provision. The Department for Work and Pensions issues food bank vouchers to claimants through job centres. Delays in processing benefit claims (up to eight weeks, one food banker told me this week), and increasing incidence of benefit sanctions, mean the state is leaning ever more heavily on voluntary food banks to help people who it excludes or fails.

Even the Trussell trust, an impressive UK food bank network whose operating model explicitly attempts to design out many of food banks’ structural flaws, is feeling the strain. What started as a community-based ideal – local food for local people – is becoming regionalised. Some food banks collect more food than others, and surplus produce must be shipped from one bank to another. Logistics is becoming a key operational issue. Trussell’s executive chairman, Chris Mould, told me he was actively talking to haulage companies about how – in an act of corporate generosity – they might help it move tonnes of donated food around its foodbank networks. It has joined forces with the supermarket giant, Tesco, for a series of heavily promoted food collection days, major events that are vital to replenish shrinking food bank stocks, especially outside the “harvest festival” Autumn period, when public donations are strongest.

Perhaps most tellingly, the self-imposed rules – a maximum of three vouchers in a 12 month period for each applicant – designed to prevent client dependency and ensure food banks remain an emergency service, are under strain. Food bankers told me this week that as welfare cuts like the bedroom tax began to hurt family incomes, they were increasingly worried that more food bank clients were not just needing a food parcel “to tide them over” but were trapped in a more permanent state of impoverishment. Food banks were simply not equipped to deal with this level of sustained poverty, but as local support and advice services were cut back to the bone, it was not always clear to which official agency they could “signpost” these clients once the three vouchers were used up.

Food bankers told me stories this week that were moving and inspirational: their spirit, generosity and ingenuity is a sign of the voluntary sector‘s vitality and compassion. But the UK’s nascent food banks face some fundamental questions. Canada’s experience tells us that food banks don’t “solve” food poverty, however hard they try. At what point do they stop peddling ever faster in an attempt to fill the gap left by the welfare state? And how do they ensure that their immense, positive energies stay focused on social justice, rather than road haulage timetables?

Read the full article by Patrick Butler at:

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